By Nathan DeCorte
Horror, more so than any other genre, goes through phases. In the first years of the new millennium, it was all about shock factor. Directors like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, James Wan and their contemporaries -— dubbed the “Splat Pack” by critic Alan Jones of Total Film — competed with one another to see who could invent the most diabolical methods of mayhem and bloodletting. And the driving force behind the mayhem was the filmmakers’ early introduction to the horror and exploitation cinema of the past.
“They grew up in the ‘70s with the Lucio Fulci movies, the Ruggero Deodato’s, all these sort of ‘Video Nasties’ as they came to be called,” Jones comments in the 2011 documentary Splat Pack.
And trauma was the name of the game. The Splat Pack’s body of work was all about bringing back the ol’ ultraviolence that the splatter films of their youth relished, and which newer films had largely done away with.
“My big pleasure, as a fan of the genre, was to go the video store and find the old movies from the ‘70s, the ones from Wes Craven, the ones from [John] Carpenter,” said Alexandre Aja, director of 2003’s Haute Tension and the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. “Those filmmakers were here to traumatize you in the best way, so the movies would really stick with you forever.”
But audiences’ appetites for gore were only going to go so far. By the time the third Hostel film was released in 2011, the torture bubble had burst and audiences had moved on.
Around the same time, the zombie film came back in a big way. The 2002 film 28 Days Later, the 2004 horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead were the vanguard of the new zombie boom, and before long it seems like every independent producer in the game was rushing out zombie flicks as fast as they could throw a production together. Most of these films were boldfaced knock-offs of 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead. Either that, or they were pale imitations of George Romero’s classic Dead films. A few broke out of this mold, like 2006’s Fido and 2010’s The Dead, but with little variety in the fare being presented and virtually no quality-control, the genre became oversaturated with mediocre efforts very quickly. In 2016 the only hanger-on left is the enduring popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead.
The next big thing was found footage. Now found footage films have been around for a while. It is generally agreed that 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust was the first, but it was itself influenced by the Italian Mondo films — a series of pseudo-documentary exploitation films depicting extremely lurid subject matter produced largely during the 1960’s. And independent filmmakers have been producing them consistently since The Blair Witch Project took the format into the mainstream in 1999. But the production of found-footage movies didn’t reach critical mass until Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield cleaned up at the box office in 2008 and 2009, respectively. With their success, it was inevitable that a deluge of imitators would follow. Now as much as everyone likes to complain about found footage movies, there are some excellent examples of the genre: Man Bites Dog, a French dark-comedy from 1993 about a documentary team that accompanies a serial killer as he goes about his business, the 2004 short Deathdealer: A Documentary, which stars former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins as a white-collar Grim Reaper suffering a unique midlife crisis, 2007’s bleak crime thriller The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and the highly imaginative Norwegian monster flick Trollhunter from 2011 all come to mind. Unfortunately, the same aspects that made found-footage films attractive to producers — minimal budgets and quick turnaround on investment — ensured that, just like what happened with zombie movies, the market would become too saturated too quickly, and that audiences would tire of them before long. These days the phrase “found footage” may as well be a dirty word, and news of a new Friday the 13th film being shot in the style was received so negatively that the project was shelved indefinitely. Found footage is dead.
The horror genre always looks to its own past for inspiration. Many of today’s horror hounds can trace their interest in the genre back to a specific film from yesteryear.
For example, Joe Davison -— an independent horror film producer based out of Tampa -— told the Tampa Bay Times of his introduction to horror. As a teenager in the ‘90s, he came across films like 1981’s The Evil Dead and 1992’s Braindead on the video store shelf, the graphic box art catching his eye.
“One box, the back was very plain,” Davison said. “On the other, there was someone with his ribs exposed, another person cut in half, so it’s like, ‘I’m going to go with that one.’” Davison went home with The Evil Dead and its sequel. “I watched those movies and it changed my life.” He would go on to make a number of gruesome splatter films, like 2007’s killer clown opus 100 Tears, right here in Tampa.
Even in the early days, horror filmmakers begged, borrowed and stole elements from their predecessors. Universal wasn’t the first studio to make a Dracula or a Frankenstein film after all, and George Romero wasn’t the first guy to make a zombie movie. There’s almost always been some previous work to borrow from, and that’s what’s going to happen moving forward. Just as the Splat Pack drew on the exploitation cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s, just as the films of the zombie boom aped the styles of Romero and Fulci, and just as the majority of found footage films recycle plots like they were beer cans, the next big thing will probably be something we’ve already seen.
For the last decade and a half filmmakers have been throwing gore, jump scares and frantic camera work at the audience to try and get a rise out of us. And it doesn’t work anymore. Most of the latest gore films, found footage films and supernatural screamers have gone over like a lead balloon. When a film like 2013’s The Green Inferno can generate the anticipation and high expectations among horror fans that it did, only to leave the audience ambivalent before fading into obscurity, it’s time for a change in tactics. Personally, I think that the next trend to make a comeback is going to be good old fashioned psychological horror.
While hard-edged gore films like The Green Inferno and major studio productions like 2015’s Poltergeist remake fail to excite, it’s been more thoughtful films like 2013’s The Conjuring, 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, 2015’s Crimson Peak, and most recently 2015’s The Witch that have managed to resonate with viewers. Interestingly, on the surface there’s certainly similarities between these films from their baser contemporaries. Goodnight Mommy, Crimson Peak, and The Witch don’t exactly shy away from violence, but the violence in those films has context. It involves characters that the audience has spent time with and cultivated an interest in, characters made real by inspired acting and direction, rather than the disposable victims in any of the Saw or Hostel films. And the story of The Conjuring is right in line with 2012’s competent but underwhelming The Woman in Black, but is much more earnest, more convincing and resists resorting to the cheap jump scares of the latter. It’s a love letter to the atmosphere and mood-driven haunted house films of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, rather than a contemporary of more recent efforts like 2012’s Sinister. These are the kinds of films that still make the viewer’s skin crawl hours after the end credits. And it seems like more filmmakers are catching on.
2016 is shaping up to be a good year for horror. 10 Cloverfield Lane opened last week to rave reviews. The sequel to the found-footage monster movie concerns a woman who wakes up sealed in a man’s basement, unable to leave due to his claims of some kind of chemical attack. Next month will see the release of Green Room, a film about a punk band hunted by a pack of skinheads after witnessing a murder. The trailer makes it look like a mashup of Romper Stomper and Straw Dogs, with visuals inspired by 2011’s The Raid (needless to say, I’m excited). Also debuting next month is Hush, a tight thriller already garnering positive word-of-mouth concerning a deaf woman being stalked by a psychopath in her secluded home.
Horror films aren’t like romantic comedies. Producers can’t just keep greenlighting the same movie over and over and expect results. The audience’s tastes are always evolving, and what scared us yesterday won’t scare us tomorrow. As is usually the case, the independent and outsider filmmakers are the first to recognize changing tides and respond accordingly. Now it seems that the rest of the film world is finally catching up.
Nathan DeCorte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.